USA TODAY International Edition

Kaluuya is a powerful ‘ Black Messiah’

- Brian Truitt Columnist

The biblical title of “Judas and the Black Messiah” is totally fitting for its scintillat­ing narrative, about a Black man wanting to galvanize his people while facing brotherly betrayal and menacing authority.

Directed by Shaka King and produced by “Black Panther” filmmaker Ryan Coogler, “Black Messiah” ( eeeE; rated R; in theaters and streaming on HBO Max Feb. 12) satisfies both as a tense thriller and insightful period piece featuring two of the most captivatin­g actors in Hollywood, Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield. Their star power in the movie, which premiered Monday at Sundance Film Festival, keeps “Judas” interestin­g through a densely packed history lesson about the FBI’s obsession with tamping down the influence of Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton in the late 1960s.

William O’Neal ( Stanfield) is a young Chicago ne’er- do- well who is busted and brought in by the FBI on charges of impersonat­ing a federal agent and stealing a car. Baby- faced Gman Roy Mitchell ( Jesse Plemons) gives him two options: Go to jail or infiltrate the Illinois Black Panther chapter and be an informant about what “Chairman Fred” is up to.

Amid the tumultuous political and social unrest of the ’ 60s, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover ( Martin Sheen, under a ton of makeup) founds a counterint­elligence program to silence political dissent and prevent “the rise of a Black messiah.” Hampton especially poses a problem for Hoover because he not only speaks up for the Black community nationally in terms of racial injustice and police brutality, he also forms a “Rainbow Coalition” with the white Young Patriots and Latino Young Lords to rally “oppressed brothers and sisters of every color.”

As O’Neal rises higher in the Black Panther leadership and becomes closer to Hampton as head of security, his paranoia grows about being found out – either by those who recognize him from his criminal life or Panthers wondering if he’s a rat – but he also becomes more affected by Hampton’s stirring, profound oratory. The chairman’s power and presence make him an exalted figure in the community, though his character is grounded by a relationsh­ip with Deborah Johnson ( Dominique Fishback), who joins after hearing him speak.

Kaluuya always has been impressive, from his Oscar- nominated hero in Jordan Peele’s social horror hit “Get Out” and romantic bandit in “Queen & Slim” to supporting turns in “Black Panther” and “Widows.” Another

nomination should be in the cards here showing the full range of his talents: As his new film’s “Black Messiah,” Kaluuya projects appealing charisma in major speech scenes but also a lot of heart as the gravity of Hampton’s work weighs heavily on him.

Similarly, Stanfield is great at playing all the issues clawing at O’Neal, and he fuels many of the film’s most white- knuckle scenes. Plemons’ character has to deal with the moral complicati­ons of his choices, too: He initially views the Black Panthers as “terrorists” akin to the Ku Klux Klan, though questions his organizati­on’s handling of Hampton. Only Hoover is a straightup villain here, and Sheen really goes for it.

“Judas” is rich in history, a little to its detriment. ( For those who choose the HBO Max streaming route, it’s OK to have some Wikipedia pages open. We won’t judge.) It’s not a biopic at all because it covers a lot of historical figures and events that happened in a short amount of time, but you’re left wanting to know a lot more about Hampton, whose life was cut short at 21 when he was assassinat­ed in 1969.

The film forms a triptych of sorts with other timely films in this awards cycle: “The Trial of the Chicago 7” has Hampton as a background character during the U. S. government’s efforts to punish protesters after the 1968 Democratic National Convention, and the documentar­y “MLK/ FBI” centers on Hoover’s campaign against another of his “Black messiahs,” Martin Luther King Jr.

What makes “Judas” stand out is an emphasis on the personal aspects of a true revolution­ary who tried to empower others for the greater good while unknowingl­y facing subterfuge from within.

 ?? PROVIDED BY WARNER BROS. ?? The FBI targets Black Panther Fred Hampton ( Daniel Kaluuya) in “Black Messiah.”
PROVIDED BY WARNER BROS. The FBI targets Black Panther Fred Hampton ( Daniel Kaluuya) in “Black Messiah.”
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